Team Exergy will line up for the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday as underdogs against the best teams in the world, but the Continental squad's director Tad Hamilton is confident his riders are capable of reaching their goal of scoring one big result.
"One big result is what we need," Hamilton told Cyclingnews. "It'd be nice to chase the general classification around all week, but really if we can win a stage or put a sprinter's jersey on for a couple days that's the sort of thing we have to try to do."
Coming off an exceptional week of results at the USA Crits Speedweek series, Carlos Alzate will be one of the fastest sprinters in the pack. In the seven Speedweek races, Alzate won two, was second in a trio of races and never finished outside the top 10. Those results netted him the overall series, but how will hour-long criterium racing translate to five hour stages?
"I was concerned about that," said Hamilton, adding that Alzate relied upon the advice of veteran Fred Rodriguez, a three-time US Pro national champion for his pre-Tour preparation. "Freddie told Carlos to do 90 minutes to two hours of riding every morning [before the criteriums]. It's hard to predict how he will come out of it. I think the first day or two might be tough, but I think he'll transition in."
The 29-year-old Colombian is a former Pan American champion in the individual and team pursuit but also has almost a decade of international experience under his belt and showed he can handle the longer distances with a 10th place finish in the Philadelphia International Championship last year.
While this year's Tour of California offers up few opportunities for the sprinters, Hamilton said the race tactics will dictate whether or not the stages will suit the fast men. "If we do climbs [hard] early and the race is blown apart, all the sprinters are going to have a tough time contesting it. But if the break goes early and the group comes to the line together then Carlos and Freddie have a reasonable shot to do a good result. It's going to be part Carlos' legs and part politics in the peloton."
The team has been scouting the stages this spring, and Hamilton expects the opening stage in Santa Rosa to be difficult to call.
"You never know [what will happen] - last year at the Pro Challenge, the race started with a prologue, someone started with the yellow jersey, and the team has to defend that. When you start with a road stage, the leader's jersey can change hands until the time trial. It's a wide open affair starting without a prologue. I would imagine that any advantage on the first day that the strong guys can get, they're going to take to the line, they're not going to let it come back together.
"Maybe after someone gets the yellow jersey it will settle down and there will be more control of the race."
The team will line up with Rodriguez, Alzate, Matt Cooke, ninth overall in the Tour of the Gila last week, Andres Diaz, Sam Johnson, Logan Loader, Morgan Schmitt and Serghei Tvetcov. While the squad has less international racing than most of its competitors, Hamilton still expects his team to put a stamp on the race as they did in last year's USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.
"The distance is definitely a concern, but at the same time, we don't have any responsibility in the race. We don't have to use resources to keep the race together, so in theory we should have more people available at the end. In Colorado it was a similar situation.
"Typically we ride at the front, it doesn't matter if we're riding in a regional race, NRC race or UCI race. It helps to have someone with the cache' like Freddie that gives us more credibility and elbow room in there. It's tough to ride at the front but we fight hard for that and we don't back down."
Hamilton thinks it was that kind of tenacious riding that earned his team the invitation to the Tour of California.
"We have strong guys, and I think people are going to be surprised by that. Anyone who's been in the peloton with us knows that. I think we deserve our spot and we proved that last year in Colorado. When we were there, there were four different days when we were off the front. Freddie was on the podium in the final day, but Cooke was also in the selection after the climb at the start."
Having a rider like Rodriguez on the team and racing well were important factors, but Hamilton also thinks that the broad support of his title sponsor Exergy in the US cycling scene was also key to his team's selection.
"Exergy is doing so much for the sport, and they've been conscious to spread the support around - they sponsored the US mountain bike championships, the USGP of Cyclo-cross, the Exergy Tour women's race, the Boise Twilight is now the Exergy Twilight. Together with the women's team, and our men's team - that gives us a little bit of recognition too. We're really grateful for that.
"Without a doubt, their support of the sport has been a benefit to our team."
Team Exergy for the Tour of California: Fred Rodriguez, Carlos Alzate, Matt Cooke, Andres Diaz, Sam Johnson, Logan Loader, Morgan Schmitt and Serghei Tvetcov.